“If you know Jesus well, it is enough, even if you know nothing else. But if you do not know Jesus, whatever else you learn is nothing.”
These words were the personal motto of Lutheran reformer John Bugenhagen (1485-1558). He was the head pastor in Wittenberg, Germany, a co-worker in the Reformation and Martin Luther’s pastor.
While it makes for a nice saying, what do these words mean for us today? With so many good things to know and learn in this world, has Bugenhagen said that only a certain kind of Christian knowledge is holy, useful and good? Are Christians the only ones who know true things about God and life?
Questions like these help us consider the meaning of the Reformation slogan solus Christus, Christ alone. At first glance, Bugenhagen’s motto and phrases like “Christ alone” can sound like salvation and wisdom belong to “Christians alone.” That is not what this phrase means.
The good shepherd and merciful judge
Many New Testament verses tell us that Jesus knows the people of this world better than we do. Jesus has sheep in other pastures (John 10:16), he promised salvation to the honest thief on the cross (Luke 23:43), and he welcomes into heaven those who never knew that they were serving him (Matthew 25:34-40). From this perspective, “Christ alone” is not a way to keep people from God.
Instead, “Christ alone” is a word of freedom. When we are tempted to make salvation something we achieve through our holiness, “Christ alone” reminds us that Jesus is the only one who truly brings reconciliation, freedom and the life of God. When religious people—including our churches—want to define who is in or out of God’s kingdom, we recall that “Christ alone” is the good shepherd and merciful judge. When we wonder what it will take to piece this broken world back together, we know that “Christ alone” gives the healing love that makes us whole.
“Christ alone” is a word of freedom. … When we wonder what it will take to piece this broken world back together, we know that “Christ alone” gives the healing love that makes us whole.
For this reason, reformers like Luther, Philipp Melanchthon and Bugenhagen used the phrase “Christ alone is our righteousness” to show how Jesus uniquely cuts through all the obstacles that get in the way of reconciliation with God and our neighbors. The second generation of reformers used this same phrase in the Formula of Concord (Epitome, article 3) to affirm that no one and nothing else in creation sets us free from that which keeps us from God. Further, “Christ alone” does not minimize the other members of the Trinity but points to the unique work of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit.
A claim to service
It’s true that “Christ alone” is a statement of faith that belongs to Christians. Even so, this does not need to create an “us against them” situation when it comes to other religions or viewpoints. We can share our experiences of Christ’s goodness, using the same loving care that Jesus extended even to enemies. Being solus Christus people reminds us that Christ himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In that light, “Christ alone” is not a claim to superiority but to service.
What might this kind of sharing look like in practice? In a world full of big ideas and competing powers, we can join Joshua in saying, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). When confronted with other sources of meaning in life, we can say with Paul, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). We can talk about what “Christ alone” means to us, even as we treat others with the same respect we would want to receive ourselves (Matthew 7:12).
Besides religious faith, what do we make of other kinds of knowledge, like the arts and sciences, business and public service? Bugenhagen’s statement about knowing Jesus doesn’t displace the importance of these other fields. It does, however, suggest that Christian faith reshapes what we know in helpful ways. For instance, knowing Jesus invites us to consider not only which technologies we use but how we use them. Knowing Christ means not wondering if we should care about our neighbors but how we are effectively serving those around us.
The Lutheran reformers knew that many things compete for our hearts. That is why they insisted upon “Christ alone” as the sole liberator and resting place for our lives. Their reforms of worship, church and society sought to keep the goodness and freedom of Christ central. In this way, “Christ alone” is a message of faith and freedom simple enough for children, yet deep enough for a lifetime of wisdom, growth and action.